what are you teaching when you are teaching writing?

I’m getting back into the swing of things today with our new TA orientation beginning tomorrow and the first day of class next Monday. This has me looking over the materials I use in our teaching practicum and thinking about big picture questions, like this one.

I am very sympathetic to the argument made by David Russell (and extended by Elizabeth Wardle among others) regarding the problematic underpinnings of a general academic writing skills course, which is how composition is commonly conceived. Though the concept of FYC as a general academic writing skills course remains predominant in theory (and even undergirds the WPA and NCTE Outcomes Statements), in practice, of course, one doesn’t see it, which is understandable since general academic writing skills don’t exist. Instead, one sees a variety of topical courses that involve a fair amount of writing and require students to submit drafts and revise. These courses do tend to offer more direct instruction and attention to completing these writing assignments than the typical college course, but in this sense they are analogous to the biology course that offers instruction in running labs properly or the photography course that offers instruction on composing photos.

For this reason, Wardle  writes about meta-cognition: the thinking about thinking that asks students to generalize about writing from their specific writing activities. And this is something along the lines of what we try to do: to introduce students to rhetorical-analytical processes by which they can investigate the writing situations in which they find themselves and understand the compositional practices that they bring with them to the class. Though Russell’s point about the specific nature of writing activity systems makes sense, I wouldn’t want to overstate the inflexibility of human know-how. Clearly one can bring the experience of writing in one situation to another situation; it’s just that such knowledge/experience doesn’t take the shape of general knowledge. In other words, I do think that developing a regular writing practice will help you become a better writer and more adaptable to new writing situations.

One problem is that some may think that a course on this subject isn’t as interesting as a more topical course on whatever subject you might name. Is a class about graphic novels or video games more interesting than an introduction to rhetoric? (That’s a rhetorical question.) On the other hand, should students be required to take a class on graphic novels or video games? (Again.) The cold, hard truth is that most general education courses aren’t that interesting. Furthermore, this is difficult conceptual stuff.  It’s not about the particular stylistic and generic practices of the humanistic essay or some given subject. More importantly, FYC cannot become a course about rhetoric. The difference here is between know-that and know-how. We need the latter not the former.

Here I am sympathetic to the arguments of Geoffrey Sirc regarding how composition studies made specific, disciplinary decisions to conceive of writing in a rather limited way in its articulation of “process” and academic discourse. Most writers don’t require this kind of rhetorical-analytical knowledge in order to write; they learn how to write through an immersion in their specific writing activities. Journalists learn to write by working at newspapers, lawyers by working a law firms, scientists by working in labs, etc. That’s really an argument against FYC entirely or at least to say this is a course where you learn to write like us. However I’m not sure who the “us” is there or why we’d make such a course required, particularly when no one seems to really want to teach it, let alone take it.


If FYC is a course in know-how rather than know-that,it can’t be a course in the know-how of a specific writing system that pretends its a general writing system. It has to be the know-how of rhetorical-compositional analysis and practice development. It is not, to use Russell’s phrase, general ball-handling skills (as opposed to soccer or baseball or basketball or ping-pong), but it isn’t knowledge about rhetoric either. It’s knowing-how to approach new writing situations and figure them out, and slightly more specifically, knowing-how to use writing in the immediate contexts of the university as one encounters it (which of course will vary somewhat from student to student depending on major).

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